This is another archival repost originally written for my old blog a few years ago.
I caught the last couple of minutes of Extreme Pilgrim (BBC 2, Friday 9pm) and was intrigued, so fired up the iPlayer to watch the whole thing. It’s Vicar of Dibley meets Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival, all done in the style of an American college student movie. The main character presenter is Peter Owen Jones, a Sussex parish priest who defies the law that Anglican priests may speak no louder than a whisper. His accent is very 1960s public-school, though it also reminded me a little of this Fry and Laurie sketch, which begins to make sense when you learn that before joining the priesthood he was in marketing. There is marvelous rhythm in the way he pronounces “Him-ah-lee-ahs”. It made for a slightly surreal programme when combined with the Alan Davies haircut and constant bewildered/stoned facial expressions.
Jones goes “seeking the spiritual enlightenment that Britain once had” in India. He joins some Sadus at the Kumbh Mela, the massive Hindu festival on the Ganges. The first half of the programme is given over to Jones getting stoned and staying up ’till five in the morning. I wonder what Stephen Green or Mary Whitehouse would make of nice Anglican vicars smoking weed on the BBC. After a wadge of notes has changed hands, the group sit around the camp fire talking of how we should not be seeking rewards in this life, and of how the modern world is too concerned with the economic at the expense of the spiritual. In a marvelous scene with a cross-legged old guru, subtitles pop up to say “give me a hundred rupees”; this is translated for Jones, however, as a stream of spiritual babble about giving up material possessions. Another marvelous scene shows Jones, having been fast-tracked into the job of a Sadu, dressed in the full orange robes and still looking rather spaced. He stands in silence for twenty seconds before wondering aloud “where am I?” When the festival is over Jones sets off for a cave in the mountains with the objective of “purifying your parts with austerity”. Fnarr fnarr.
It’s all very nice. We meet lots of amicable characters preaching peace and charity. But it’s the perfect advert for why peaceful, liberal, friendly, wishy-washy “spiritual” religion is not universally harmless. This is the eastern spiritual utopia that so many Westerners look to as the solution to the problems of our materialist lives in the West? A skeletal shaman runs back and forth across a busy road to kiss the tarmac: “he’s making the energy meet — that’s his philosophy.” In his mountain cave, Jones is visited by the village chief, who comes with offerings and a request for blessings of his daughter’s marriage. Jones is very upset one morning as he confesses to battering a scorpion with a saucepan: “I was a guest on his territory.” The programme closes with Jones observing that he is “a product of a society that values economic well-being as much as spiritual well-being.” Uhuh. And your society has running water, an absence of open-pit latrines in the street, and a distinct lack of amoebic dysentery. I would call that a good thing. And that is the problem with peaceful, liberal, friendly religion: to value “spiritual needs” means to value the next life and the invisible friend above the needs of real people in the one life that they get. A “philosophy” that values disease and starvation does not indicate a care for man’s real spiritual needs.
So while the programme ended up as Vicar of Dibley meets Ray Mears, deep down it was trying to combine the Jesus complex of the git-wizard David Blaine with the philosophical power of rocket scientologist Tom Cruise. The programme thinks that it is making a profound insight into society and nature (the same “profound insights” of stoned hippies everywhere), but utterly fails to make the case. Still, it makes for entertaining television.